To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


The sign over the door of The Hanged Man was a strange one. It showed a man dangling upside down from a gallows, tied by his left ankle, with his right foot crossed beneath his left knee. Tucked under his bound arms were bags from which gold and silver coins spilled. Yet there was a smile on his face and a look of calm. Taraval adjusted the lute on his shoulder and said, “Perhaps the falling coins are a good omen, Segway. We have got to earn some money here.”

“I’ll work in the stable, master Taraval,” Segway offered. “It will save money if I sleep there, too.” Taraval spoke his approval of this plan as the boy tethered the horses.

The inn was a typical one, with a low ceiling, rough tables, and the floor covered with rushes. On entering the common room they were greeted by sounds of a rowdy argument going on in the kitchen.

“I know you took the spices,” a woman shouted. “I saw you!”

“You didn’t!” a second voice shrilled. “You’re making it up because you know my spice buns are better than yours!”

The voices of the two women were then drowned out by a third.

“Elizabeth! Magdalen! Guests are coming in! Settle this by the time I com eback, or you’ll wish you had!”

The door to the kitchen opened and a short, round woman with plump, dimpled cheeks and hands glided in, making an unsuccessful effort to replace the frown on her face with a smile.

“Good day, good sir,” she said, the harshness of her voice belying the friendliness of her greeting. “I am Mistress Witherspoon. Are you in need of a room?”

“Aye, we are, but I am hoping we can pay you with our talents, Mistress. I am Taraval, a minstrel from the kingdom of Ilahee, and this lad is a fine stablehand.”

The frown on the woman’s face deepened and she shook her head. “If I gave a free room to every lute player who stopped in Landshut, I’d have an inn full of lute players and no room for paying guests. I’d have a chorus of them, in fact, and each of them a worse player than the last.” She shook her head again, with finality. “Absolutely not, young sir.”

The woman started to turn away, but Taraval stepped in front of her.

“Listen to but one song, Mistress. Just one, and then decide.”

“I’ve already decided,” she said firmly.

At that instant a fierce commotion erupted. The kitchen door opened with a jolt and the two cooks burst into the room, shouting at one another. One of them, a tall, thin blond woman, pushed the other one, a short and squarely-built rehead, and she in turn grabbed and jerked a handful of the blond’s long hair.

“Ow! Ow!” the blond shrieked. With a lurch she threw herself at the red-head, and the next moment the two of them were rolling on the floor, screeching wildly as they clawed and slapped at each other.

The sight of women fighting astonished Taraval, for it was something he had never witnessed in Ilahee. If the combatants had been men, he would have plunged into the fray and tried to separate them, but he had no idea how to deal with two women clawing at each other like wild animals. His next move was entirely intuitive, and later he could not explain why he had swiftly slipped the lute from its case and begun to play a soft ballad. A feeling of pleasure flooded him as the lute strings responded to his fingers almost as if they anticipated the notes. This lute was a marvel!

Segway stared at him in surprise, but as the sweet music filled the air a smile of pleasure lit up the boy’s face. A moment later, Elizabeth and Magdalen abruptly stopped shouting and pummeling each other, rolled apart, and stood up sheepishly, and straightening their clothes and then curtsying to the two guests.

Taraval was as astonished by their sudden change as he had been by their fighting, for he had not anticipated that the lute’s music would have such an effect. When he noticed that, though distracted from their battle, the cooks still glared at one another, he made an instant decision to trust the music further. Finishing the ballad, he began to play and sing a lively and comical song he had learned from a musician in Ilahee about the trials of innkeepers and their help.

At first the lips of the two women remained tightly drawn, but gradually they began to smile at the verses, and when he reached the line, “Crickety-crack goes the baker’s back, a’bending to take his loaves from the rack,” both of them burst out laughing.

The harder he played, the harder they laughed, until they had to hold each other up, tears streaming down their cheeks. Taraval saw that Segway and Mistress Witherspoon also were caught up in the spell of the music, for the proprietress held out her hands to Segway and the two of them began an awkward but sprightly dance. When they made an arch with their arms, Elizabeth and Magdalen ducked under it and began to dance around them.

Gradually the spell stole over Taraval, too, and he saw his audience as if in a dream, their faces contorted in laughter and their eyes glazed in almost drunken pleasure. He felt an amazing surge of power, as if he were playing not just the lute, but the emotions of his listeners as well. Yet he knew the power came not from him, but from the instrument, his ever more marvelous tandaril lute.

Even after he had finished the song, it was several moments before the laughter faded, to be replaced by exhausted sighs and hiccups. Elizabeth and Magdalen looked at one another and burst into a final peal of merriment. Elizabeth reached out and brushed a smudge of flour from Magdalen’s cheek, and with a giggle they hugged one another and went back into the kitchen.

Mistress Witherspoon stared at Taraval, her mouth hanging open. “Well, bless me!” she exclaimed. “I have never heard or seen anything to match that. Those two have been fighting in my kitchen for years and now they behave as fast friends. Your music is magical, young sir.”

“Then you will reconsider your decision?”

The woman nodded. “How could I not, after hearing such music? Yes, I would be honored to have the minstrel Taraval of Ilahee entertain my guests. And if your music always has this power to soothe, I’m sure the guests will be happy to…”

Her voice trailed away as her eyes widened, fixed on something behind Taraval. The pleasant afterglow of the music suddenly evaporated and, feeling a cold presence at his back, Taraval turned around. The man in the doorway towered over him, rubbing his unshaven cheeks with pudgy, sausage-like fingers and staring at him with crafty, suspicious eyes half hidden under a dark, heavy brow. “My brother Thomas said you wanted me,” he said. “My name is Philip Carbold.”


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